back to article 'Red-rated' legacy IT gets refresh in UK as US battles theirs with bills

The UK government has committed to ending its reliance on legacy applications, or at least those it deems the highest priority, by 2025. In a policy paper released yesterday, the Central Digital & Data Office (CDDO) said the costly issue of technical debt had been allowed to build up over multiple financial cycles and was now …

  1. Mike 137 Silver badge

    "The systems were eight to 51 years old"

    That's quite a range to be classified as 'legacy'. One might reasonably question a 50 year old application's relevance given changes in government processes (quite apart from support), but eight years seems a quite short lifetime for taxpayer funded IT. Unless of course a key purpose of our paying taxes is to support vendor revenue streams. it should be possible to implement systems that last much longer than that - as indeed was the case in the mainframe era (which incidentally is not yet over).

    1. hoola Silver badge

      Re: "The systems were eight to 51 years old"

      Ah but this is where you are wrong. If it is not in the public cloud then it is "Legacy" even if it is a month old. The snake-oil salesmen will be hounding directors with presentations and all sorts of scare stories about how their existing systems are "Legacy" and are doomed to fail.

      All sorts of improbably savings will be quoted and funky PowerPoint presentations showing have slick everything is.

      That is will end in failure, not deliver the improvements, zero savings and cost billions more over the lifetime of the system than on-prem is irrelevant.

  2. IanRS

    It is often said that if a politician's lips are moving, then they are lying.

    "They are simpler and faster to use while also cutting costs."

    We are talking about major government IT projects here. Sorry, but I simply do not believe you.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It is often said that if a politician's lips are moving, then they are lying.

      FTFY - it means:

      "It's all going to be on world-beating apps and there won't be any actual people to talk to."

  3. batfink Silver badge

    50 of the most frequently used digital government services will be upgraded by 2025

    So these will all be done over the next three years then? Best of luck with that.

    It'll take 12 months to set up the teams, especially as it'll need to be outsourced. Then they expect to analyse the existing business processes and the legacy systems that support them (including finding the non-existent/out of date/contradictory existing documentation), work out how it needs to be done now, code that up, test it and move it all into Prod over the next two years? For 50 of the "most used" systems? With doubtless the usual suspects like Craptia at the wheel?

    Maybe I'll come out of retirement. If this is going to happen they will need to be throwing a hell of a lot of money at it.

    1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

      Re: 50 of the most frequently used digital government services will be upgraded by 2025

      Can't wait when Infosys just copies their tax software from India and just runs sed -i 's/India/UK/g' across the code base

      1. katrinab Silver badge

        Re: 50 of the most frequently used digital government services will be upgraded by 2025

        Why use a 50 year old technology called sed when a few TB of Javascript frameworks and libraries can do it in a fraction of the speed?

  4. batfink Silver badge

    "Digital Boot Camps"

    I will be interested to see whether these "boot camps" can actually get across to these 6500 senior public servants the actual complexity of business-supporting large systems, and the inherent difficulties of both maintaining and replacing them.

    Or are they just going to be taught a bit of HTML?

    1. Primus Secundus Tertius

      Re: "Digital Boot Camps"

      To be effective, the lessons would have to be framed in Latin or Ancient Greek.

    2. Eclectic Man Silver badge

      Re: "Digital Boot Camps"

      I wonder who will be running the aforementioned 'digital boot camps'. There seems to be an assumption that senior civil servants who have almost completely failed to grasp the complexities and difficulties of modern ICT infrastructure requirements analysis and definition, scope creep and user interface design can in a few short weeks become as competent as a cross between Tim Berners-Lee, Jony Ive, and Bill Gates (you might not like them all but they did know mostly what they were doing).

      I fear that the Digital Boot Camp will be as successful as trying to convert middle-aged croquet players to MMA.

      1. Cederic Silver badge

        Re: "Digital Boot Camps"

        Are there Youtube videos of middle-aged croquet players entering their first MMA competition?

        Asking only so I can fully appreciate the analogy. I wouldn't use them for cheap entertainment. Honest.

        I would use senior civil servants for cheap entertainment though. They must be good for something?

        1. A Nother Handle

          Re: "Digital Boot Camps"

          If they're allowed to use their croquet mallets I think they stand a chance.

    3. elsergiovolador Silver badge

      Re: "Digital Boot Camps"

      It is all about siphoning money to the party donor corporations doing fake bootcamps.

      Then lessons will be learned etc etc

      Until the next one.

      1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

        Re: "Digital Boot Camps"

        I think Boris knows someone who would fit the bill:

    4. Warm Braw Silver badge

      Re: "Digital Boot Camps"

      I once met a group of Treasury "high flyers" - the supposed crème de la crème of the civil service intake - on one of their "meet the plebs" induction activities. At the time the government was about to offer significant tax incentives to small limited companies. They were stupefied when I said that in the event of that happening, I would convert from sole trader status and incorporate - they simply hadn't considered that people they were not targeting might be motivated to pursue their free money. In the less rarefied Whitehall departments I'm sure the lack of critical thinking is even more pervasive.

      They were all academically bright, but they had been recruited as much for their top-down view of the world as for their intelligence. The problem is that once they find out how the world actually works, they move to the private sector and use their knowledge of the civil service to profit handsomely.

      However, I still think the majority of the blame lies with politicians who continue to will political ends without any thought as to the means, the cost of which will largely be borne long after they have left office.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: "Digital Boot Camps"

        Anyone in the legislative or policy making worlds thinks that the plebs will react as they, TPTB, intend. What they fail to do is look at what they're planning from the PoV of those plebs with their own desires and motivations to work out what the reaction will really be.

    5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: "Digital Boot Camps"

      This is a good concept providing the boot is applied to those who don't make the grade.

  5. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    "Mission Four: Efficient, Secure and Sustainable Technology"

    That was one of the Hartnell Dr Who episodes wasn't it? The one with Zoe lovingly strewn across the Tardis console....

    lovingly? no, I meant artfully....

  6. Mike 137 Silver badge

    "Or are they just going to be taught a bit of HTML?"

    Probably javascript rather than HTML.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "All 'red-rated' legacy systems identified through an agreed cross-government framework will have an agreed remediation plan in place...."

    Given step 1 of the current government plan is to cut 40% of civil service headcount across the board, I wouldn't bet on any of this remediation actually happening.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "the costly issue of technical debt"

    "technical debt" isn't an issue, it's a policy. Also known as putting your head in the sand, kicking the can down the road etc because doing anything is likely to be expensive and unpopular, so leave it to the next guy (gal)... who leaves it to the next guy... who...

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: "the costly issue of technical debt"

      There is a current myth that it's cash debt ( borrowing) that lumbers the future generations with debts. Not that they won't have that debt, they will. But that the alternative somehow won't.

      But a technical or infrastructure debt is still a debt. And often not paying for stuff now means much greater costs later, or along the lines.

      Every computer or programme that is overdue for something more efficient is creating that debt. One day it will have to be paid for and it will likely cost more, as well as having been inefficient and wasteful in the meantime.

      Every road unrepaired gets worse as well as slowing/damaging cars and increasing pollution.

      Every school roof and leaky window left unrepaired will eventually need much more work, damage infrastructure.

      Every hospital and school built on the cheap is a debt for the next generation, when they start to break down and need expensive repairs or replacement.

      Every kid left hungry through poor benefits and crap school meals will perform worse, get poorer grades, have worse health and cost the country much much more because they are the next generation of workers and parents.

      Cutting the NHS bursary for healthcare students isn't a saving, because the NHS will have to pay far more to recruit staff for decades to come.

      And so on. All these are the debts that don't appear on balance sheets. But more to the point don't figure in any commentary that starts with "we can't pass on our debts to the next generation". Because we are passing them on to the next generation. just not in cash

  9. elsergiovolador Silver badge


    Just remember that any system can be replaced by a spreadsheet.

    1. Alumoi Silver badge

      Re: Excellent

      Correction: by a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet!

    2. gerdesj Silver badge

      Re: Excellent

      You laugh but I remember a Finance Director using Lotus 1-2-3 for "word processing" back in the '90s.

      I also remember the Company Secretary (her actual job title, UK ltd company and she was not a Director but a secretary - not confusing at all)! I (all of IT) wired her up to our nascent network (me and some CAT4 etc and a couple of hubs) and migrated her to Win 3.1 and taught her how this mouse thing works. Next day she had it on the floor next to the old dictation pedal and she used her foot to control the bloody thing! Seriously clever podal-dexterity. She could touch type and move the mouse with her foot. However her knowledge of WordPerfect keybindings was legendary (CTRL-F9: Font) and using MS Word held her up so I got the DOS WP working and kept her seriously productive.

  10. Dr. G. Freeman

    Will they be replacing the BBC Micro that runs the Jobseeker's Allowance system ?

    The one where it takes three working days to do anything.

  11. DS999 Silver badge

    Surely the SSA doesn't need "retired" COBOL programmers

    You can teach any programmer COBOL, and if you offer good salaries good programmers will be willing to learn. Might be boring, but you'd have great job security there.

    What they probably need are people who know the ancient systems they are running on. It seems like they should be able to fix that via emulation, then they can keep running the old COBOL code for decades to come on rows upon rows of Linux servers or in the cloud.

    Yeah ideally it would be replaced wholesale but we've all been around the block enough times to know how that will go. The only way it would work is to have a team use the current code as the plan for the new system, and just get a new system running which ONLY replaces the functionality of the current one - don't even start on new functionality until all the regressions from the old system's behavior are addressed or at least documented. But nobody wants to do it that way, because someone else will come along with a plan that promises to take half the time and cost 75% less, but will end up costing 5x as much and being abandoned after 7 years.

    1. Ashentaine

      What they need versus what they "need"

      >What they probably need are people who know the ancient systems they are running on.

      Yes, but what they "need" according to every middle manager who's been dazzle-eyed by the latest flavor of the month programming language and wants bonuses they don't really deserve is a modernized, future-proofed system that's so efficient it doesn't need expensive permanent staff to maintain.

      So while they may need properly trained programmers who can maintain existing code indefinitely and keep the status quo going smoothly, what they'll get are a few fly-by-night code cowboys who bodge together a makeshift version of the app that can't be upscaled, relies on a very specific hardware configuration to work correctly, and becomes impossible to maintain after the language it's written in falls out of favor and nobody supports it anymore. And then five years later we end up right back where we started...

    2. cchas

      Re: Surely the SSA doesn't need "retired" COBOL programmers

      I'm aware of two huge system suites that are running on out of support hardware and costing HMG a fortune to keep the hardware supported - the DWP pensions/payments systems and the MoJ mags court systems.

      The DWP systems are the costliest (>30yr old) and the ones they have tried several times, at great cost, to renew/migrate/convert - no its not possible to run in cobol emulation - they've tried to migrate to a newer cobol that could be emulated and failed dismally in that. Amongst other reasons - too much coupling between the code and the underlying machine architecture even though the suite itself was well designed.

      IMHO the basic issue is that there is no-one left who understands what the systems actually do - there isn't a comprehensive test suite so the smallest changes take silly lengths of time - and how do you create a test suite for migrated code from scratch?

      Yes the only viable approach is to build from scratch but after a reverse engineering of current business to understand what the systems do and confirming thats what they need to do. That's at least a 2 year exercise and will be expensive - the key is deciding to do it - the alternative is to keep paying fujitsu an ever increasing fee to keep ancient circuit boards under 'we'll try' support levels.

      The joke is that the underlying systems are the equivalent of a small-mid-range server today.

      The mags system took 15 years to build and is a humungous badly designed set of cumulative changes - given its history there is no alternative to scrap and rebuild - a hugely expensive (multi billion) programme was in place in the MoJ to replace all systems - but they focussed on disconnected 'agile' delivery which of course spent lots of time and money on front ends - ignoring architecture and the hard work of understanding what the back ends and hence the business actually did.

      So yes 3 years won't hack it - but they have to start sometime.

  12. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "50 of the most frequently used digital services will be upgraded at the same time"

    What could possibly go wrong?

  13. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    51 years old

    I wonder if the system that was superceded by that one was only replaced because of decimalisation.

  14. PaulVD

    Pygmies inheriting from giants

    Why is it that our predecessors of 50 years ago could build systems like these, but that we - far richer, better educated, with outstandingly better hardware and software - can no longer do so? I get that updating and extending an undocumented old system is impossible, but it seems that we cannot even build a modern system from scratch to do the same job, so that we could then extend it.

    I am reminded of the Saxons, building hovels in timber, surrounded by great Roman stone buildings which they had no way to emulate.

    1. DevOpsTimothyC Bronze badge

      Re: Pygmies inheriting from giants

      I suspect it has alot of the same reasons that the multiplier between average earnings and house prices are much bigger now than they were 50 years ago, with a good sprinkle of why there is such a "skills shortage" in the UK.

      It's not that an old system cannot be built or maintained it's that building them and maintaining them requires knowledge of both the old way and new ways of doing things. That knowledge requires specialism. We all know that the more specialist someone's skills the more they can charge for them. Perhaps if UK businesses (and government) invested in digital skills, didn't have managers who had more in common with Luddites and didn't have a race to the bottom those "below" them on the corporate ladder to fuel their own pay checks then there would be a hope.

  15. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    All the Fun of the Fare are in Greater IntelAIgent Games Plays Ahead ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽

    What could possibly go wrong ...... apart from everything being confirmed as a lot worse that anyone ever thought possible with the systems in place being replaced being discovered to be perverted and converted to keep legacy hereditary status quo elitists in command and control of CHAOS .... Clouds Hosting Advanced Operating Systems.

    This is not a drill. I repeat .... This is not a drill ......... Liberties are being taken and US are being attacked ..... Your safety is this government's absolute priority. Our cyber task force is ...

    Hiding in plain sight and disguised as a mammoth fiction used to have, whenever mass media operations were in overall absolute control of unfolding events for future presentation, fact dismissed as too unbelievable to be honestly true and thus conveniently rendered as just a fantastical program for further exclusive executive terrification and excessive inequitable selfish enrichment. Nowadays though is that ancient power forever lost to A.N.Others .......

    “We have learnt that the UK is under threat of imminent cyber attack by an as-yet-unknown foreign power. Your safety is our priority”.*

    And how odd that that trailer for "The Undeclared War" is not more easily found in more of the normal sort of places where such are usually widely available.

    And beware of unintended consequences for actions taken against that which is largely unknown and beyond traditional and conventional means and memes of command and control for such are more inclined to be designedly catastrophic rather than fortunately euphoric.

    * ......

    Have a nice 0day, y’all. And don't Panic. It doesn't help. IT and AI does that for you.

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